Thursday, May 28, 2015

Background: "The Vagabond Lover"

Click here to read my review of the 1929 film "The Vagabond Lover." What follows is some background on the movie:

Before Bieber, before Timberlake, before Elvis and Sinatra and even before Crosby, there was Vallee.

In the late 1920s, Rudy Vallee and his band, the Connecticut Yankees, were huge.  They were a top attraction at New York City nightspots and as part of the stage show at the Paramount Theatre, and their recording of “Honey” was the second-largest selling song of 1929. That same year, Vallee became the host of one of radio’s first variety shows, “The Fleischmann’s Yeast Hour,” which would run for 10 years and establish Vallee as a judge of new talent as well as a performer – he hosted the radio debuts of everyone from George Burns and Gracie Allen to Kate Smith to Milton Berle.

So 1929 was a very good year for Rudy Vallee, and the release of his first full-length film, “The Vagabond Lover,” was the icing on the cake. But as far as the movie reviewers of the time were concerned, Vallee was wise to keep his bandleader job.

“Little should be said for Rudy as an actor … he just isn’t,” sniffed Motion Picture News.

“When he is playing that old sax or crooning a love song he certainly is a little bit of all right, but when he’s acting, well, that’s another matter,” added Film Daily.

Vallee’s lack of expression – the fact that he reacts to every joy and crisis in the movie with the same wan smile – didn’t keep “The Vagabond Lover” from establishing a single-day box-office record at New York City’s Globe Theatre on Thanksgiving, 1929. It was one of RKO’s top-grossing films of the year, making a profit of $335,000 for the studio.

The film’s story is a rough parallel to Vallee’s career -- as a teenager, Hubert Prior Vallee started playing the saxophone and appropriated the first name of his idol, sax player Rudy Wiedoeft. In “The Vagabond Lover,” Rudy and his Connecticut Yankees are still small-timers; they have ventured to the Long Island estate of saxophone master Ted Grant, from whom they have been taking mail-order lessons, to get his blessing.

Alas, Grant is an egotistical jerk, and he rejects the band at the front door without even a tryout. Then Grant and his manager leave for the city, but Vallee and his Yankees don’t know that and they are determined to sneak into Grant’s mansion and play for him.

Enter Grant’s next-door neighbor, well-to-do culture vulture Mrs. Whitehall (Marie Dressler) and her niece Jean (Sally Blane, Loretta Young’s real-life sister). They have called the local constabulary to report the noise at Grant’s house, and Rudy is mistaken for Grant. Mrs. Whitehall then insists that the band play at a charitable event she’s hosting, and Rudy gives vague indications of being attracted to Jean. A happy ending looms, but not before Rudy and the Yankees (with comedy relief from Eddie Nugent) perform such numbers as “Nobody’s Sweetheart,” “A Little Kiss Each Morning” and, of course, the title song, which was co-written by Vallee.

And while the reviewers pooh-poohed Rudy’s acting ability, they had nothing but praise for his co-star, who was enjoying the beginning of a career revival.

After a long stage career and the occasional film, Marie Dressler was dipping her toe into the Hollywood waters again, gaining good notices for her role in the 1928 film “The Patsy” opposite Marion Davies. “The Vagabond Lover” was her first role in a full-length talking picture and triggered a career resurgence that included a role in Greta Garbo’s first talkie, 1930’s “Anna Christie,” and an Oscar for her work in “Min and Bill,” made the same year. Dressler then became one of Hollywood’s most bankable stars in the few years before her death in 1934.   

At the same time, however, the audiences of young women weren’t coming to see Dressler, but Vallee. As a reviewer for Photoplay put it: “The kid may be no Barrymore, but neither can John sing ‘A Little Kiss Each Morning’ and bowl over the girls the way Rudy does.”

Director: Marshall Neilan
Assistant Director: Wallace Fox
Original story and screenplay: James Ashmore Creelman, Jr.
Cinematography: Leo Tover
Art Director: Max Ree
Musical Director: Victor Baravalle
Cast: Rudy Vallee (Rudy Bronson), Sally Blane (Jean), Marie Dressler (Mrs. Whitehall), Charles Sellon (Officer Tuttle), Norman Peck (Swifty), Danny O’Shea (Sam), Eddie Nugent (Sport), Neila Walker (Mrs. Todhunter), Malcolm Waite (Ted Grant), Alan Roscoe (Manager), The Connecticut Yankees (Themselves)
BW – 70 min.

Sources:
Motion Picture News, November 16, 1929; p. 25
Film Daily, December 1, 1929, p. 2
Film Daily, November 27, 1929, p. 1
Photoplay, February 1930, p. 74



Thursday, May 14, 2015

Background: "The Squall"

The 1929 film "The Squall" is a notoriously bad early talkie with an over-the-top performance by Myrna Loy that I skewered in this post. If you're interested, here's a little background on the movie.

The arrival of "The Squall" in the nation’s theatres during the summer of 1929 provoked this response from moviegoers and critics alike:

You’re kidding, right?

“Two different audiences on viewing ‘The Squall’ laughed long and loud at its sexiest moments,” reported Motion Picture News. “This is one that you will want to keep away from your juvenile patronage. It is strong meat for most adults, who can take it either seriously or laughingly as they see fit.”

“The best that can be said for this production,” added Mordaunt Hall in The New York Times, “is that the atmospheric effects are sometimes very good. The dialogue and the acting, however, are so pathetic that they discount any minor virtues this offering may possess, for even the discussions concerning love and the hardy embracing are open to ridicule.”

“You remember that this was a fairly good stage play. You’re sure that the film version is pretty bad,” added Photoplay. “Something happened between the story conference and the cutting room. Myrna Loy is the stereotyped Nubi, the gypsy girl and the hot baby who disrupts homes, while Alice Joyce is the Hungarian mother and Carroll Nye is the son. This film just doesn’t click, that’s all. And it’s unconsciously funny.”

Based on a 1926 play that ran a year on Broadway, "The Squall," viewed through contemporary eyes, is melodramatic high camp that brings to mind the “Bad Playhouse” sketches from the early days of “Saturday Night Live.” It’s full to bursting with awkward dialogue, obvious plotting and performances that range from immobile to oblivious.

To state the plot, we turn to an advertisement for the film that ran in Variety:

Nubi – gypsy gale of passion! An ill wind that blows no man good when, whirlwind-wild, she rages untamed through peaceful lives … Born of the storm, this half-clad human hurricane takes love where she will – from old, from young; from father, from son. Cyclonic in her caresses … Venomous, voluptuous, super-vampire … The fury of her passion lays waste the souls of men!

Any questions?

Myrna Loy is Nubi, a Hungarian hottie with blazing eyes and razor-sharp cheekbones. She is a gypsy who has been catapulted from the caravan for her wanton ways. She seeks refuge at the peaceful, prosperous farm of the Lajos family because she is on the run from the gypsy leader. “He keel me,” she purrs.

The Lajos family is compassionate, and they give Nubi food and a place to live even as a storm brews outside and they speak dialogue that foreshadows trouble like crazy. Take this exchange, between the young Irma (Loretta Young, also receiving the worst notices of her career) and Grandfather Lajos (Knute Erickson):

Irma: Oh, I just hate squalls. They only make everyone so unhappy. I'd like someone to tell me why we have them.

Grandfather: Perhaps there's a reason, Irma. God gives us shadows that we may know light. He gives us sorrow that we may know joy. And perhaps he sends the squall that we may learn the beauty of a limpid sky.

Before you can say “the Gabor sisters,” Nubi is trying to seduce every guy in the joint – son Paul (Carroll Nye), farm hand Peter (Henry Cording) and father Josef (Richard Tucker, at left). (“I am keesing your shadow,” Nubi tells Josef.)

Longtime wife Maria (Alice Joyce) is watching from the shadows. What's a wife to do? "My husband -- half of my life," she says. "My son -- the other half." It falls to Maria to get rid of Nubi, courtesy of a convenient return of the caravan. The Lajos family can return to a life of prosperous complacency, thanks to the family matriarch.

Nubi is one of Loy’s most notorious turns as an exotic temptress – similar, if less melodramatic, characterizations would follow in films such as “Thirteen Women” and “The Mask of Fu Manchu."

"They built me up as someone with a knife in her teeth," she recalled in a 1987 interview.

Although ad copy for “The Squall” billed her as a “sensational overnight star,” the reality was the Loy’s career dated to 1926, and she had appeared two years earlier in the first talkie, “The Jazz Singer.”

Fortunately, Loy’s career would survive her turn as the nubile Nubi – it would be another few years, and several more ethnic villainess roles, before Loy would be cast as Nora Charles in “The Thin Man” and begin a career as one of Hollywood’s most endearing leading ladies. And despite a review in Variety that characterized her voice as being “identical with commencement exercises in a grammar school,” Loretta Young also went on to have a long, successful career.

Others in the cast weren’t as fortunate.

After a twenty-year career in silent films, Alice Joyce’s speaking style was condemned by several critics and she only made a few more films. After playing the father, Richard Tucker, despite being a founding member of the Screen Actors Guild, went on to a sporadic career in B movies.

Loy’s spicy performance as Nubi ensured that “The Squall” would run into censor trouble – in Chicago, in particular, the movie was heavily edited. But shrewd theatre operators turned this to their advantage. Said one in Motion Picture News: “In prominent place in ad feature: ‘This picture is adult entertainment. Children will not enjoy or understand it,’ and you’ll have everyone coming from high school age and over.”

Sources:

Motion Picture News, May 18, 1929, p. 1717
Motion Picture News, June 8, 1929, p. 1963
The New York Times, May 10, 1929
The New York Times, Myrna Loy Receives a Tribute, November 7, 1987
Photoplay, July 1929, p. 56
Variety, May 8, 1929, p. 12
Variety, May 15, 1929, p. 20
Variety, May 15, 1929, p. 30
Variety, June 26, 1929, p. 9


Friday, May 1, 2015

CMBA Fabulous Films of the '30s Blogathon: "G-Men," or Better Fed Than Dead

This is part of the CMBA Fabulous Films of the '30s Blogathon!

Hollywood's Most Famous Bad Man Joins the "G-Men" and Halts the March of Crime! -- ad for "G-Men" in Variety, April 1935

1934 was a bad year to be a gangster.

On May 23, Bonnie and Clyde were gunned down in Louisiana.

On July 22, John Dillinger bought it outside the Biograph Theatre in Chicago.

On October 18, Charles Arthur "Pretty Boy" Floyd -- who had become Public Enemy No. 1 after the death of Dillinger -- was killed in a cornfield near Clarkson, Ohio.

And on November 17, George "Baby Face" Nelson -- who had become Public Enemy No. 1 after the death of Floyd -- was wiped out in a showdown with FBI agents just outside of Chicago.

On the other hand, 1934 was a very good year indeed to be J. Edgar Hoover.

Hoover's genius for public relations -- and for self-promotion -- turned the tables on the "glamorous" gangsters who got all the headlines in the early 1930s. He created the idea of "Public Enemy No. 1" so that America could keep track of which gangsters were getting knocked off. He planted in the public imagination the idea that upright, incorruptible FBI agents were present at every shootout with every gangster, regardless of whether they were or not. And when George "Machine Gun" Kelly, surrounded in 1933 by FBI agents, said, "Don't shoot, G-Men!," Hoover eagerly promoted the nickname.

As a result of the headlines -- and also partly due to the desire of Hollywood studios to get on the right side of the Hays office in those days of more rigid enforcement of the Production Code -- by early 1935 gangsters were out and the Feds were in.

The first rush was to register the title "G-Men," and Warner Bros. beat Universal to the punch by just 24 hours.

Several studios had entries in the sweepstakes -- RKO's "The People's Enemy," United Artists' "Let 'Em Have It" and MGM's "Public Hero Number 1," among others.

But the winnah and champeen -- one of the highest-grossing movies of the year, in fact -- was "G-Men."

And the man playing the lead G-Man was the same guy who'd spent the last five years at Warner's shooting at cops, fighting at the drop of a fedora, doing a musical or two and pushing women around -- James Cagney.

As James "Brick" Davis, a lawyer who joins the FBI to avenge the death of a friend who was also an agent (Regis Toomey, gone in a flash), Cagney is as self-assured and as pugnacious as ever. Still, there's something muted about him -- he's tough, but he's missing that impudent edge that enlivened so many pre-code movies.

To its credit, the movie doesn't try to pass off Cagney's character as a straight arrow -- he's a street kid who got a college education courtesy of McKay, the local bootlegger (William Harrigan). But the guy expects no favors -- he wants Brick to follow his own moral compass.

So, following his friend's murder, Brick leaves his moribund law career -- and his entertainer girlfriend (Ann Dvorak as a dvancer) behind. He goes to Washington and starts his training. To give the movie some conflict, the writers give Brick a frenemy in McCord (Robert Armstrong, seen at left), an FBI trainer who thinks that law school graduates like Brick aren't tough enough to be feds. Is HE in for a surprise! Oh, and Brick falls for McCord's sister (Margaret Lindsay). Is HE in for a ... oh, I already said that.

It just so happens that Brick's buddy was killed by the same gang that's high on the FBI's most wanted list, a group led by Collins (Barton MacLane). But the real target is triggerman Leggett (Edward Pawley), the guy who killed Brick's pal. And nobody gets away with that, see?

In the best Warner tradition, "G-Men" rips plot elements straight from the headlines. A train station ambush that sets Leggett free is based on the Kansas City Massacre, a 1933 bloodbath that involved the efforts of Pretty Boy Floyd to free prisoner Frank Nash. And Collins and his gang end up hiding out at a Wisconsin hunting lodge -- the same kind of place as Little Bohemia, where the feds tried and failed to catch the Dillinger gang in early 1934.

Brick's old bootlegger pal McKay owns the place, but he's a victim and is being held hostage by the gang. Also there is Brick's old flame, the dvancer. Since Brick has brushed her off, she's taken up with Collins -- with deadly consequences.

You can pretty much predict how "G-Men" ends, and when Brick ends up saving McCord's life in a shootout that captures the bad guys, McCord endlessly talks about what a great guy Brick is to anyone who'll listen. The movie is a kind of canonization of Cagney the hero and kicks off the second half of his busiest and most iconic decade. If his work doesn't have quite the same spice as his earlier performances, well, let's just chalk that up to being better fed than dead.

Here's a trailer from a re-release of "G-Men" from 1949, celebrating the 25th anniversary of the FBI: